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Antimatter principle

What is Expertise?

Hiring an expert is a pretty much everyday occurrence. There’s accountants and lawyers, bankers and insurers, butchers and burger flippers, gardeners and mechanics. Sometimes we hire people not for their expertise, but simply to save us time, for example dog walkers or housekeepers.

For those folks we hire for their expertise, what does that actually mean? In the Antimatter frame, we might choose to say that experts possess – and can apply – more effective strategies for getting (some of) our needs met than we possess ourselves.

We’d not often tell our accountant how to calculate our tax liabilities. Nor our lawyer how to prepare and present our legal case. That’s because, with their more effective strategies, they’re likely to achieve a more effective outcome than we, with our relatively ineffective strategies, could. So we’re more likely to see our needs (in the round) get met.

Where’s this Going, You Might be Asking

Well, let’s turn our attention to hiring people – be that employees, contractors or consultants. Sometimes we’ll hire people to save us time. We could do the job that we’re hiring them to do, but we have more valuable things we can be spending our time on, so we hire them to do the less valuable things.

But sometimes, we’ll hire folks for their expertise. There’s some needs for which we accept our own strategies for getting those needs met are relatively ineffective. Like, running a software team or department, for example. So we find someone who appears to possess – and can apply – relatively more effective strategies.

So far, so good. If we choose our experts well, we’ll see our needs met more effectively – sometimes very much more effectively – than if we chose to attempt to meet those needs ourselves.

However. What happens when the effective strategies employed by our experts seem inexplicable to us? When we just can’t understand how applying their preferred strategies can achieve getting our needs met? We rarely quiz our accountants and bankers on their strategies. But we do quiz our new hires. As if we’d understand.

The Credibility Barrier

We have crashed headlong into the “credibility barrier”. Where it’s our own incredulity that blocks us from hiring those very folks possessing the most effective strategies for getting our needs met. And the most likely outcome being, we’ll reject the expert and their expertise, rather than recalibrate our assumptions and beliefs about what’s credible.

– Bob

The Folks That Matter™

Stakeholders, team members, the Big Team, customers, users, snakeholders – call them what you will, they’re the people that we’re doing the work for. They’re the people to whom we deliver the fruits of our efforts. They’re the people whose reactions – and emotional responses – decide the success or failure of our endeavours.

Personally I like to call them The Folks That Matter™.

By way of example, Here’s a partial list of the groups and individuals that are candidates for inclusion in the set of The Folks That Matter™.

  • Your organisation’s Core Group
  • Your manager
  • Your project manager
  • Senior managers and executives
  • Your dev team
  • Other dev teams
  • Ops people
  • The PMO
  • Testers (when separate from the dev team)
  • QA folks (when present)
  • The Process Group (when separate from the dev teams)
  • Your business sponsor(s)
  • Other people across your organisation
  • Your (end) customer(s) (and their purchasing departments)
  • Commercial partners
  • Regulators
  • Wider Society
  • The Planet (Gaia)

The Interesting Angle

For me, when I’m involved building stuff, I have a need know who we’re trying to please, delight, satisfy, or otherwise engage with and deliver to. I need to know what folks need, and who to ask about the details of those needs, if and when the detail moves to front of mind. I need to know whose needs we can successfully discount when the inevitable resource (time, money, effort) crunches come. Whose needs we can reasonably consider as outside the scope of the endeavour in which we’re involved? And I need some heuristics to guide us in decisions on including, excluding and prioritising folks and their needs.

But there’s something much more interesting than who’s on and who’s off the list of The Folks That Matter™, at any given time. The much more interesting question for me, as an Organisational Psychotherapist, is: What governs the choices? How do folks get added to or removed from the set of The Folks That Matter™? Are the means the product of rational thought, discussion and evolution, or maybe they’ve just happened, or been cargo-culted. And what are the consequences of the prevailing means? What impact do those means have on the success or failure of our endeavours? And therefore on our bottom line?

By way of example, here’s some common means for tackling the question of means:

  • Consensus
  • The Advice Process
  • Autocracy
  • Dictatorship
  • HiPPO
  • Cost of Focus

(Aside: Each collective mindset in the Marshall Model has its own popular choice for these “means”: Autocracy for the Ad-hoc, Dictatorship or HiPPO for the Analytic, Consensus or the Advice Process for the Synergistic, and e.g. Cost of Focus for the Chaordic).

Is it helpful for folks on the dev team to be involved in some way in maintaining or keeping the list of the The Folks That Matter™? Is that possible, in any given organisation? Is the question even discussable?

When Resources Are Limited, Some Folks, Needs, HAVE To Not Matter

And what about the folks that don’t matter (that don’t appear in the set of The Folks That Matter™? I know many readers will baulk at the idea that some folks and their needs don’t matter. But, please, get over yourselves. In any situation where resources are constrained (i.e finite, not infinite), choice HAVE to be made. Lines drawn. Resources committed to some areas and held back or withdrawn from others. How could it be otherwise? Inevitably then, in this particular frame, there must be Folks Who Don’t Matter™.

Cost of Focus

Don Reinertsen states that the Cost of Delay – the financial or economic cost of prioritising one feature over 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. The question of Cost of Focus.

By definition, we are not meeting some 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, 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 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 whose needs to attend to, the particular order in which we attend to those needs (cf. priority, Cost of Delay) is moot.

– Bob

Further Reading

Who Really Matters ~ Art Kleiner

The Antimatter Opening Question

In Clean Language, a conversation with a client often opens with the question “What would you like to have happen…?”

This has bugged me for a long time, for two reasons:

  1. Maybe the client doesn’t like for anything to happen (therefore it’s not truly a Clean question). 
  2. In the Antimatter frame, it matters little what the client might like (or want) to have happen. It matters a whole lot more what they might need to have happen.

So, I generally open with “What might you need to have happen…” (the Antimatter frame). 

As I make no pretence to use Clean Language (excepting on the rare occasion), reason 1, above, is rendered moot. And reason 2 dissolves as we expressly ask what the client might need. I’ll just point out that this is a much harder question to answer, not least because folks may be able to quickly state what they’d like, but generally have much more difficulty identifying their needs. For me, this is another point in favour of the Antimatter frame – we can directly begin to explore the question of what they might need to have happen. And for this, I generally opt for the NVC (nonviolent communication) four step approach.

– Bob

The Marshall Plan

I guess most people, when they start a new job or client engagement, have in mind the things they want to do and see happen. Most likely, things they’ve seen or made happen in previous jobs or engagements. Along with, maybe, some things they’ve read or heard about and are minded to try out, given the opportunity. (And what better opportunity than the honeymoon period of a new job or client?)

We might choose to call this an agenda.

My Agenda

I’m no different, excepting perhaps the items that feature on my agenda:

  • Invite participation in discussing “who matters?” (with respect to i.e. the work and the way it works)
  • Empathise with the emergent community of “folks that matter” (not exclusively, but as a priority)
  • Invite folks to listen to each other’s volunteered observations, hear each other’s feelings, and explore each other’s needs.
  • Invite folks to solicit and then begin attending to each other’s requests (explicit and implicit)
  • Offer and provide support to folks and communities in their journeys

Note: I’ve not included on my agenda anything about specific actions that I myself might want to do and see happen, beyond the items listed. Specifically, although I’ve written often about strategies such as Flowchain, Prod•gnosis, Rightshifting, the Marshall Model, self-organising/managing teams, the quality of interpersonal relationships and interactions, etc., I don’t bring these into my agenda. If folks discover these strategies for themselves, they’re much more likely to understand their fundamentals, and maybe come up with even more effective strategies.

The Antimatter Principle is the only strategy I’ve regularly written about that recognisably features on my prospective agenda, and then only by extending invitations to participate in that strategy. (Note: Attentive readers may just notice the tip of the Organisational Psychotherapy iceberg peeking out from the above agenda).

I’ve reached a point in my journey where, keen as my ego is to see all my ideas (strategies) made manifest, my experience tells me that’s not the way to go for the best outcomes for the community as a whole.

As for the Marshall Plan, I believe it’s best, in the longer run, to have the folks involved (in particular, the people that matter) do their own discovery and learning. Discovering for themselves, over time – through means they also discover for themselves – effective strategies for attending to folks’ needs (often including the principles underlying those strategies). I see my role in this Plan as supporting – in whichever ways folks request, or say they need – this collective endeavour. Such support quite possibly to include actively helping the discovery and learning, whenever there’s an explicit (albeit refusable) request for me to do so.

– Bob

Further Reading

The Benefits of Self-directed Learning

Difficult Conversations

Before this turns into a mini-series, I’d just like to add one observation to my previous two posts.

Setting aside the outcomes sought by the people that matter, outcomes related to the business and its needs, there’s the not inconsequential matter of the unexpressed outcomes sought by these folks with respect to their own personal needs. Often, these needs are not discussed, shared or even registered at a conscious level by the individuals concerned. And often, then, explicit outcomes have yet to be identified – both by them and by us.

There’s not much point addressing the needs of the organisation (see my previous post) without also attempting, at least, to address the needs of the individual people that matter. This asks of us more effort, because we’re likely to be starting “further back”, before these folks have even expressed their personal sought outcomes. And because they may be reluctant to get into these kinds of conversations, being unusual in a workplace context. And then there’s the difficulty involved in “speaking to power” or at least empathising with people in positions of power.

Examples

Some examples may help clarify this observation.

Senior managers and executives, in articulating the sought outcomes listed previously, may also want to control the solutions chosen, hence their providing solutions in the form of wants. Often there’s an underlying need to feel “in control”, driven by some need, such as their need for order, or personal safety, or kudos.

Similarly, articulating their sought outcomes may, in part, derive from their need for tangible progress, or a need to be seen as the driver of that progress.

Summary

Entering into, and sharing the exploration of these often intensely personal topics is certainly difficult. But that difficulty can ease when we have the right conditions – such as trust, friendship, skill, and safety. And without such conversations, we’re that much more likely to spend much time and effort on delivering outcomes that no one really needs, or worse – that actively work against folks’ needs.

– Bob

Further Reading

Crucial Conversations ~ Patterson & Grenny
Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most ~ Patton, Stone, Heen & Fisher
Discussing the Undiscussable ~ Bill Noonan
Feelings Inventory ~ List at the Centre For Nonviolent Communication
Needs Inventory ~ List at the Centre For Nonviolent Communication

Wants, Needs

My previous post seems to have struck a chord, judging by the number of retweets on Twitter. It also presents an opportunity to explore a perennial challenge of building things for other people: teasing out real needs from expressed wants.

Have you ever worked with business folks who articulate their wants in the form of solutions, rather than as solution-free “requirements”? As means rather than ends?

Let’s take another look at the list of desired outcomes (wants) appearing in the aforementioned post:

  • A more coherent, disciplined approach to software development
  • Improved governance and oversight
  • Improved estimates
  • Better due-date performance (reliable on-time delivery)
  • More visibility into project roadmaps
  • Common standards
  • Better project organisation
  • People working “in sync”
  • Senior management confidence (in e.g. the teams’ ability to deliver)
  • Higher staff motivation and engagement

Business Analysis for the Way the Work Works

From my days as a Business Analyst, I’ve learned that uncovering needs means having an ongoing dialogue with the people that matter. A dialogue in which we dig down, together, into the things they say they want, so as to uncover their real needs. Once we’ve teased apart the wants from the needs, we’re in a better place to choose effective strategies (solutions) for addressing those needs. Going with the superficial wants tends to box us in to the strategies (means) they provide. Strategies which often fall short of being effective.

I suspect what I’m talking about will become clearer as we examine in turn each item from the above list…

Item: A more coherent, disciplined approach to software development

This looks to me like a solution masquerading as a need. That’s to say “a more coherent, disciplined approach” seems like more like means to other ends, than and end in itself. What might those ends be? What might be the underlying needs driving this proposed solution? A dialogue with the people that matter seems in order here. A dialogue that could prove challenging, absent a degree of trust and willing collaboration. And even assuming we are all able to dig down towards the underlying needs, just as in building software there’s no guarantee we’ve identified those needs accurately, until we’ve built and delivered something and seen it “in production” long enough to gather some feedback. Active feedback, which also implies iteration and evolution: “Is this really meeting the needs of everyone that matters? Is it good enough yet? What else do we need to do to improve it further?” etc..

For illustration, I’ll take a stab at the needs which might underlie this want. Maybe some folks suppose that “a more coherent, disciplined approach” will bring order to the present chaos (a need for order). Maybe some folks suppose that “a more coherent, disciplined approach” will make delivery of e.g. features or product increments more predictable (a need for predictability).

Maybe productive and effective dialogue will uncover other latent needs implicit in this want.

Item: Improved governance and oversight

This also looks to me like a solution masquerading as a need.

Maybe some folks choose “Improved governance and oversight” as their automatic, default solution (strategy) for bring order to the present chaos (a need for order).

Item: Improved estimates

This again looks to me like a solution masquerading as a need.The No Estimates movement and debate has just about done this one to death. What might the supposed need for “improved estimates” imply. What’s really need here?

Item: Better due-date performance (reliable on-time delivery)

Whilst we could imagine this as yet another solution masquerading as a need, in this case I find this want more interesting, maybe closer to a real need than the previous two items.

I suspect some folks that matter may suppose that “better due date performance” is the obvious means to improve (external) customer satisfaction, and thereby revenue, repeat business, profit, market demand, market share, and other business metrics. Maybe those involved in the way the work works, armed with an explicit, agreed need to satisfy one or more specific business metrics, would be able to come up with ways of working which effectively address those metrics. In other words, valuable innovations.

Item: More visibility into project roadmaps

This again looks to me like a solution masquerading as a need. What might be the underlying need here? Maybe it’s something born of a feeling of powerlessness in the absence of information about what’s happening. Maybe it comes from a sense of frustration or embarrassment when having to face customers and investors expecting information about product release schedules, feature sets, and road maps. Whatever the case, an effective, productive dialogue may flush out some of those underlying feelings, and thereby lead to a better understanding of the needs we’re all trying to address.

Item: Common standards

Yet again this looks to me like a solution masquerading as a need. I’ve heard this want many times in numerous companies. This looks to me like an implicit solution to the question “how do we become more flexible, how can we cost-effectively deploy and redeploy our developers between projects and project teams as business priorities change?” I guess the people that matter suppose that “common standards” is the obvious answer. But it’s our job to understand the underlying need and come up with the most effective solution (strategy) for addressing it, not just the most common solution.

But I could be barking up the wrong tree about the presumed underlying need here, so I’d want to have conversations with the people that matter so as to really understand what they might be trying to achieve through addressing this want.

Item: Better project organisation

Another solution masquerading as a need. What might “better project organisation” bring us? Better due date performance? More visibility into project roadmaps and current status? See explanations, above, for the needs which might underlie *those* wants.

Item: People working “in sync”

Solution masquerading as a need. What might “people working in sync” bring us? Reduction in friction and waste? Improved flow (of products and features into the market)? Better due date performance? By digging down, though dialogue, we may uncover candidates for the underlying needs, which we can proceed to validate through delivering a way the work works, and getting feedback on the degree to which that way of working effectively addresses folks’ real needs.

Item: Senior management confidence (in e.g. the teams’ ability to deliver)

This is probably the one item in our list of sought outcomes that’s closest to a real need. We can intuit the scale of the problem (shortfall in senior management confidence) by looking at all the solutions they’re helpfully trying to provide us with, via the other items here. Solutions (masquerading as needs) that they believe will improve things and thereby deliver the boost in confidence they seek (and need). Ironically, the solutions they provide – being very much less effective solutions than those we can come up with for them, as experts – often undermine the very outcomes they seek.

Item: Higher staff motivation and engagement

Very laudable. But let’s not let the humanity of this want blind us to its nature as (yet another) solution masquerading as a need. What’s the end in mind? Why might the people that matter seek “higher staff motivation and engagement”?

So they can feel better about the culture for which they they feel responsible? As a means to increased throughput and thus improved revenues and profits? Again, until we know what they really need, any solutions we provide will likely fall well short of the mark. In other words, wasted effort.

Summary

So, we can see that taking “sought outcomes” at face value can lead us into sleepwalking into addressing superficial wants, and adopting other people’s (non-expert, relatively ineffective) solutions. Solutions which rate poorly on the effectiveness scale, and which in any case may well be addreessin the wrong needs. I find it ironic just how much non-expert interference and micromanagement goes unnoticed, unchallenged and unlamented. Plenty of time for lamentation a year or two later.

Bottom line: When building software, the biggest risk lies in building the wrong thing (getting the requirements wrong), and it’s not any less of a risk when “building” – we might choose to call it “evolving” or even “engineering” – the way the work works.

– Bob

A Hiding To Nothing

Most large companies are on a hiding to nothing if and when they decide they’re “going Agile” for software development. “Going Agile” can only ever deliver the outcomes these companies seek if the whole organisation is prepared to change some of its fundamental beliefs about how organisations should be run.

Sought Outcomes

What outcomes do larger compares typically seek from “going Agile” in their software development teams? Here’s a partial list:

  • A more coherent, disciplined approach to software development
  • Improved governance and oversight
  • Improved estimates
  • Better due-date performance (reliable on-time delivery)
  • More visibility into project roadmaps
  • Common standards
  • Better project organisation
  • People working “in sync”
  • Senior management confidence (in e.g. the teams’ ability to deliver)
  • Higher staff motivation and engagement

Why These Outcomes Are Unrealisable

What’s not to like in the outcomes these companies seek by “going Agile”? Although maybe not comprehensive – they lack, for example, outcomes like “joy in work”, “folks getting their needs met”, “improved flow” and “customer delight” – there’s a bunch of stuff here I could get behind.

Setting aside the observation that some of the above “outcomes” – such as “common standards” and “people working in sync” – are more solutions than needs, “going Agile”, per se, is not the answer for delivering these outcomes. At least, not within the Analytic mindset world view.

Why the Analytic Mindset is the Blocker

With an implicit Theory-X, local optima (manage the parts separately) perspective, any and all solutions attempting to deiver these outcomes through “going Agile” are doomed to undermine the very outcomes sought.

It’s likely to start well, with much interest and hope expressed by the staff. After all, who wouldn’t want more autonomy, more mastery, more purpose in their work? But as things progress, existing company policies, rules, attitudes, etc. will begin to assert themselves. To the detriment of staff morale, motivation and engagement. Pretty soon, staff will begin to question the sincerity of the management in their support for “going Agile”. Pretty soon, it will start to become apparent to anyone who’s paying attention that existing policies, rules, etc., have to change fundamentally to see the outcomes sought begin to happen.

And with declining staff engagement in “going Agile”, and reducing enthusiasm for understanding the principles necessary for making Agile successful, progress will slow to a crawl. At this point, middle-management, who have to carry the burden of making “going Agile” happen will also begin, quietly, to question the wisdom of the senior management direction. This will lead to their more often reverting to orthodox, “tried and tested” (and less personally burdensome) ways of working. And more often baulking at the effort needed to push through adoption of more Agile practices.

What To Do?

So, what’s a company to do? Most companies will not realise, or want to hear, that the Analytic mindset is fundamentally incompatible with successfully “going Agile”. So, another Agile adoption failure is in the making.

Personally, having helped various companies face up to this challenge, I’d say:

“It’s extremely unlikely that you’ll want – or even be able – to give up your existing world view. At least in the short term. So something’s got to give. And it’s probably better that you give up on “going Agile”. But DON’T give up on wanting things to be better. Park your Agile aspirations, and try another path, another solution. After all, it’s the OUTCOMES you seek that matter, not some specific – and cargo-culted – solution.”

So what might that alternative solution look like? What can an unrepentantly Analytic-minded organisation do to improve its software development outcomes?

My recommendation would be to focus on the interpersonal relationships within and between departments. Help developers understand and relate to customers (both internal and external) better. Help other folks within the organisation better understand and relate to developers.

Leveraging these improving relationships, encourage multi-party, cross-function dialogue about the outcomes sought, and what folks of every stripe can do, every day, to begin to shift the organisation’s rules, policies, structures and assumptions.

In a nutshell, be less autocratic, directive and strategic, and more democratic, collegiate and opportunistic.

And remember, I’m here to help.

– Bob

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