Oblivious

Oblivious

It’s long been my belief that the whole software industry could be doing so much better than it is doing, and so much better than it has been doing for the past fifty years and more.

In that belief is where my work on Rightshifting, and the Marshall Model, originated, some fifteen years ago now.And continues today.

In my travels I’ve seen countless organisations, groups and individuals demonstrate an oblivious disregard for the potential for significant improvement. I say oblivious because there’s almost no one in the industry with knowledge of or even a vision for how great things could be.

Oblivious

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, “oblivious” originally meant “characterised by forgetfulness”. Perhaps those in the software industry today have forgotten what previous generations, long since retired, once knew about effective software development. Or perhaps folks have just never known.

I hear some readers wonder: “is it obliviousness, or just ignorance?”. Given current usage “lacking active conscious knowledge or awareness”, I myself wonder about the roots of the phenomenon.

Through my work, in particular at Familiar, and through study of the positive deviants (outliers) in the industry, I have come to see the scope of possible improvement, and the means thereto, too.

Aside: Positive deviants include SSE (Denmark), Forward Engineering (London, UK), Lockheed Martin, and in slightly different spaces, Toyota, Semco, and Buurtzorg. ISBSG also has much confirming data.

Scope

Data (e.g. ISBSG) shows there’s a x2, x3, x4, even x5 scope for improvement in organisation-wide effectiveness of software-led organisations.

I’m regularly struck by the obliviousness of folks to this scope for improvement. To misquote R Buckminster Fuller:

“You cannot question an oversight you do not know you have made”

Causes

Whether the Software Crisis is a thing – or even was ever a thing – or not, it’s clear to me that software organisations woefully underdeliver vs their potential.

Why is this? I largely attribute it to folks of all stripes being oblivious to the scope for improvement. Whence this obliviousness? I’m guessing now, but I guess it’s down to either a lack of curiosity, or to fear of the wholesale changes to organisational assumptions and beliefs necessary to realise the potential on offer.

Fear

It’s become clear to me over the years that management has to fundamentally change, or even disappear – in the form we have known it – before we see the untapped potential of software businesses begin to be realised. And folks in the industry who may be in a position to effect such change fear for their jobs and careers. As Machiavelli, oft-quoted, wrote:

“It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.”

Paradigms

Thomas Kuhn, in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” asserts that science advances vis “paradigm shifts”. Donella Meadows makes much the same assertion with her “12 leverage points of change”.

I posit we’ll not see a widespread uptick in the effectiveness of software organisations, nor in the effectiveness of the software industry as a whole, unless and until the existing paradigm (primarily the prevailing management paradigm) changes.

Interested readers may wonder how, if, and when this might happen. I have some ideas on this, which I’ve set down in numerous posts here on this blog.

– Bob

Postscript

I know that neither data, nor rational argument convinces, nor moves the needle on action. With this post, I only hope to invite some few folks in a position to take action to become a little curious.

Further Reading

The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems ~ Pascale, Sternin and Sternin
All Executives Are Unethical ~ FlowchainSensei (Falling Blossoms White Paper)
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions ~ Thomas Kuhn

6 comments
  1. I think that most are not nearly as oblivious as they may pretend to be.

    I’ve been puzzled by the number of people in our industry complaining of imposter syndrome. That tells me that they have some awareness that they’ve missed out or are lacking something vitally important.

    And being unaware of the potential for improvement? Who does *not* know about “10 times developers”? And yet, if one admits that one isn’t one of those, and can’t hire and train people to be that, isn’t that an admission of incompetence?

    It seems, at times, to be more of a defensive reaction, to deny the obvious. Because if we accepted it, we’d have to insist that we are incompetent. And that we do not deserve promotion, bonuses, raises, or even continued employment. And that would be disastrous for us.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jeff. 🙂 How do you feel about the concept of Normative Learning?

      • “Normative” is a new vocabulary word for me. It’s not used in the domains I’ve studied.

        My google search is not giving me an entirely unambiguous definition of the term. And then there’s the question of applying it to this situation.

        Normative seems to relate to evaluating something relative to a standard. Usually relates to evaluating or judging behavior. And the “standards” seem to typically be subjective; based on personal value judgements.

        .

        It seems to me that judging change by improvement in productivity or quality appears to be a shared goal. And not really very subjective. But the differences in opinion seem to be mostly on how to get there: What behaviors are likely to improve or prevent achieving that.

        There are a “traditional” set of behaviors widely believed to be the best way to achieve quality, control, predictability, low cost, etc. But, relative to newer techniques based on empowerment and experiment, some have seen that the old techniques are often the cause of many of the problems they’re intended to fix.

  2. Summary, from site:

    “Coercion is best described as threatening sanctions. Typical of ISO9000 and public sector reform, coercion obliges compliance and punishes failure to comply.

    “Rational is best thought of as communication and training; I explain – you do.

    “Normative is best described as changing thinking through action. So, for example, you might believe in managing people’s activity, but by studying the system you realise it’s pretty much a waste of time and you’d be far more productive if you acted on the system, rather than the worker.”

    .

    Hard to see how to get my peers and superiors to agree to “study the system,” when they seem to think that “the experts” already understand it fully, and have given them all the best “answers.”

    These days, it’s a major uphill battle just to get the simplest of decisions made. It’s like nearly no one is willing to take any risks, by “making decisions,” for example.

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