Culture change

Sea Change

Last week whilst presenting a session on Organisational Psychotherapy (and Memeology) at Lean Agile Exchange 2021 I noted that Organisational Psychotherapy is a “sea change for the software industry, and business more generally”.

Does the software industry need a sea change? Probably not. At least, not on the supply side. Long schedules and high fees make for a cosy business. But on the demand side? Customers of software development seem inured to delays, poor due date performance, low quality, high costs, and a host of other frustrations and dysfunctions.

Inured, yes, but not entirely resigned. Hence attempted adoption of new approaches such as Agile, SAFe, and so on. And yet such attempted adoptions fail in at least 80% of cases. This is hardly news, and compares with some 95% failure rates in attempted Lean adoptions (in manufacturing industries).

So, if for no other reason than moving the needle on success rates in e.g. Lean or Agile adoptions, some fundamental shift in approach seems necessary.

Or do you disagree? Shall we continue to bash our heads against the wall of methods, processes, practices and tools, seeing little to no improvement – or might we seek a sea change in approach? And if the latter, what might that sea change look like, entail?

– Bob

I speak to a lot of CTOs, VPs Engineering, Heads of Development, Delivery Directors, Delivery Managers, etc..

Almost all of them seem hell-bent on delivering (e.g. software) products and product increments a.k.a. features. Almost none of them seem to have heard of the old saw:

“How do you build a great product? Build a great team and let them build that great product for you.”

C’est la via. And it’s their ball.

The Business Agility conference 2021 is on 2-5 November 2021 (online – 4 x half-day sessions). Pricey tickets – an inevitability given the target market (executives/company wallets), I guess. Too rich for me. Although I might have liked to have been invited to speak about e.g. the role of Organisational Psychotherapy and Memeology in Organisational and “Digital” Transformations.

Q: I wonder if Agile business people have any interest in humane business, effective business?


The ONE Thing

Ackoff asks:

“If there was ONE thing you could do to your organisation, what would that be?”

His answer: Democratisation.

“This is the ONE thing that has the most profound effect on an organisation and is relatively the easiest to implement.”

~ Russell L. Ackoff


Democracy (n).

In a democracy:

1. Everyone effected by a decision can participate directly, or indirectly through representation, In making that decision. (Participative decision-making)

2. Everyone in a position of authority over others is subject to their collective authority.
(In a democracy authority is circular)

3. Everyone can do anything that he or she wants to do, provided it affects no others, or affects them only with their approval.

How to Introduce Democracy into an Organisation?

(Ackoff provides us with a recipe):

Give EVERY manager a board. Who will be on each such board?

The board consists of: The manager, his/her immediate boss, his/her immediate subordinates, plus optionally other members from anywhere (inside or outside the organisation).

Any board’s headcount must be less than the number of the manager’s immediate subordinates.

“Management must shift from supervision to managing interactions.”

~ Russell L. Ackoff

How democratic is your organisation? Will it fly?

– Bob

Further Reading

Ackoff, R. L. (1994). The Democratic Corporation: A Radical Prescription for Recreating Corporate America and Rediscovering Success. Oxford University Press.

Ackoff, R. L. (1999). Re-creating the Corporation: A Design of Organizations For the 21st Century. Oxford University Press.

The Inklings

In a previous life, I was charge with leading a whole passel of software and product developers. To help create an environment where they might wish to up their game, I proposed and launched a new community called “The Inklings”. I attach the proposal and launch announcement hereunder, for your delectation/misery.


Inklings Proposal

Launch Announcement

Inklings Launch Announcement

NB These two documents have been edited/redacted/dates and names changed, to protect the innocent.

If you’re wondering how it went: I left the company shortly after, and no one took it forward.

– Bob

Visual Walkthrough Explaining Rightshifting And The Marshall Model

For those who prefer looking to reading, here’s a visual explanation (with some annotations) briefly explaining Rightshifting and the Marshall Model.

1. Context: Organisational Transformation

Rightshifting illuminates the tremendous scope for improvement in most collaborative knowledge work organisations. And the Marshall Model provides a framework for understanding e.g. Digital Transformations. Don’t be too surprised if folks come to regard you as an alien for adopting these ideas.

2. Imagined Distribution of Effectiveness

How most people imagine effectiveness to be distributed across the world’s organisations (a simple bell curve distribution).

3. Contrasting Effectiveness with Efficiency

Many organisations seek efficiency, to the detriment of effectiveness.

4. If Effectiveness Were Distributed Normally

5. The Distribution of Effectiveness in Reality

The distribution of organisations is severely skewed towards the ineffective.

6. Some Corroborating Data from ISBSG (1)

7. Some Corroborating Data from ISBSG (2 – Productivity)

8. Some Corroborating Data from ISBSG (3 – Velocity)

9. Rightshifting: Recap

10. Plotting Levels of Waste vs Effectiveness

Showing how increasing effectiveness (Rightshifting) drives down waste.

11. Plotting Levels of Productivity vs Effectiveness

Showing how increasing effectiveness (Rightshifting) drives up productivity.

NB This the the canonical “Rightshifting Chart”.

12. From Rightshifting to the Marshall Model

Starting out with the Rightshifting distribution.

13. The Adhoc Mindset

Collective assumptions and beliefs (organisational mindset).

Ad-hoc organisations are characterised by a belief that there is little practical value in paying attention to the way things get done, and therefore few attempts are made to define how the work works, or to give any attention to improving the way regular tasks are done, over time. The Ad-hoc mindset says that if there’s work to be done, just get on and do it – don’t think about how it’s to be done, or how it may have been done last time.”

14. The Analytic Mindset

Analytic organisations exemplify, to a large extent, the principles of Scientific Management a.k.a. Taylorism – as described by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the early twentieth century. Typical characteristics of Analytical organisation include a Theory-X posture toward staff, a mechanistic view of organisational structure, for example, functional silos, local optimisation and a management focus on e.g. costs and ‘efficiencies’. Middle-managers are seen as owners of the way the work works, channelling executive intent, allocating work and reporting on progress, within a command-and-control style regime. The Analytic mindset recognises that the way work is done has some bearing on costs and the quality of the results.”

15. The Synergistic Mindset

Synergistic organisations exemplify, to some extent, the principles of the Lean movement. Typical characteristics include a Theory-Y orientation (respect for people), an organic, emergent, complex-adaptive-system view of organisational structure, and an organisation-wide focus on learning, flow of value, and effectiveness. Middle-managers are respected for their experience and domain knowledge, coaching the workforce in e.g. building self-organising teams, and systemic improvement efforts.

16. The Chaordic Mindset

The Chaordic mindset believes that being too organised, structured, ordered and regimented often means being too slow to respond effectively to new opportunities and threats. Like a modern Jet fighter, too unstable aerodynamically to fly without the aid of its on-board computers, or sailing a yacht, where maximum speed is to be found in sailing as close to the wind as possible without collapsing the sails, a chaordic organisation will attempt to operate balanced at the knife-edge of maximum effectiveness, on the optimal cusp between orderly working and chaotic collapse.”

17. Transition Zones

As organisations progress towards increasing effectiveness, they encounter discontinuities which the Marshall Model labels as Transition Zones (orange hurdles). In these transitions, one prevailing mindset must be replace wholesale with another (for example, Analytic to Synergistic, where, amongst a host of shifts in assumptions and beliefs, attitudes towards staff transition from Theory-X to Theory-Y). Cf. Punctuated Equilibria.

18. What Each Transition Teaches

A successful Adhoc -> Analytic transition teaches the value of discipline (extrinsic, and later, replaced with intrinsic).

A successful Analytic -> Synergistic transition teaches the value of a shared common purpose.

A successful Synergistic -> Chaordic transition teaches the value of “Positive Opportunism”.

19. The Return-on-Investment Sawtooth

Incremental (e.g. Kaizen) improvements with any one given mindset show ever-decreasing returns on investment as the organisation exhausts its low-hanging fruit and must pursue ever more expensive improvements.

Each successful transition “resets” the opportunities for progress, offering a new cluster of low-hanging fruit.

20. Conversation

What has this walkthrough shown you? I’d love the opportunity for conversation.

– Bob

Here’s a video in which the great Russel L. Ackoff explains the difference between knowledge and understanding, and thereby the difference between analytic and synergistic thinking (Cf. Rightshifting and the Marshall Model).

Ackoff on Systems Thinking and Management


Margaret Heffernan talks about super chickens and the dysfunction of pecking orders at work. [TED video]

Excerpted from the transcript:

“So what is it that makes some groups obviously more successful and more productive than others? Well, that’s the question a team at MIT took to research. They brought in hundreds of volunteers, they put them into groups, and they gave them very hard problems to solve. And what happened was exactly what you’d expect, that some groups were very much more successful than others, but what was really interesting was that the high-achieving groups were not those where they had one or two people with spectacularly high I.Q. Nor were the most successful groups the ones that had the highest aggregate I.Q. Instead, they had three characteristics, the really successful teams.

“First of all, they showed high degrees of social sensitivity to each other [i.e. empathy]…

“Secondly, the successful groups gave roughly equal time to each other, so that no one voice dominated, but neither were there any passengers.

“And thirdly, the more successful groups had more women in them…

“The striking thing about this experiment is that it showed what we know, which is some groups do better than others, but what’s key to that is their social connectedness to each other.”

~ Margaret Heffernan

Gimme A Break, Here

Here I am, trying to change the world, and most days I feel like I’m being punished for the views I hold and share, and the aspirations I have. Not that it shakes my convictions, nor my resolve.


For more than two decades I’ve been trying to help everyone in the software industry get past the Software Crisis and discover new, more effective ways of doing things. And there are much more effective ways of doing things that the ways in common usage presently (see e.g. Rightshifting, and the Marshall Model).

I’ve not been having much success, I’ll admit.  But I keep plugging away. I might catch a break sooner or later, surely.

The Message

My message is not “I know this stuff, do it MY way.” I’m not flogging a new method. I’m not selling anything.

My message is “The way we’ve been looking at software development for the past fifty years isn’t working. How about we find other ways to look at it? Here’s a few clues I’ve noticed…”

The Old Frame

The old frame for software development – processes and tools, the very idea of “working software” as the touchstone – holds us back and prevents us from seeing new ways of working and doing.

All our focus on technical skills, coding, design, architecture, testing, CI/CD, technical practices, canned and packaged methods, generic solutions, and etc. has had us barking up the wrong tree for more than half a century.

And the almost ubiquitous centuries-old management factory hasn’t helped us make the transition.

The New Frame

I’ve written before about the new frame, but to recap:

The new frame that my long career has led me to favour is a frame placing people, not practices, centre-stage. A frame focused on people – and their emergent individual and collective needs. A frame more aligned to increased predictability, lower costs, less frustration, and more joy in work for all concerned.

A frame comprising:

Software development, as a form of collaborative knowledge work, is a predominantly social phenomenon. And as a predominantly social phenomenon we will have more success in software development when we focus on the people involved, our relationships with each other, our collective assumptions and beliefs, and everyone’s fundamental needs.

I call this the organisation’s “social dynamic”. Improve the social dynamic in a team or workplace and all the good things we’d like come for free. Like Crosby’s take on quality, we might say “success is free”.

I Invite Your Participation and Support, or At Least, Empathy

Changing the world is not for the faint hearted or indifferent. But if you give a damn, I could really use your support. And a break.

– Bob

Further Reading

Rico, D. (n.d.). Short History of Software Methods.. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Sep. 2021].

Simon Sinek (2011) If You Don’t Understand People, You Don’t Understand Business. YouTube. Available at: [Accessed 29 Feb. 2020].

Amongst many gems, my new “real page-turner” of a book, “Memeology”, defines an approach to measuring the progress of your organisation at culture change (page 44 in the current print/pdf version – or search for “sparklines”).

Are you interested in tracking your efforts at changing the culture of your organisation – and hence its effectiveness?

P.S. I’m available to help you implement this scheme.

We’re Still Working in the Dark Ages


Medievalism is a system of beliefs and practices inspired by the Middle Ages of Europe, or by devotion to elements of that period. Closely related to and encompassing Feudalism, and the Manorial system.


Medievalism’s foundations include Faith, Seigneuriage, and land lordship.


Despite many legal and social changes since the Middle Ages, from the perspective of folks working in organisations there’s not much difference between serfdom then and employment today. Employees are hired and remain employed at the whim of the Lords of the organisation, and dismissed with as little thought – or maybe even less thought – than serfs.

The relationship between employer and employees remains predominantly one of power-over. And although a relationship, it’s hardly ever a humane relationship. And thus hardly ever a positive contributor to organisational effectiveness.


Whilst any kind of universal solution remains a long way off, and dependent on widespread social change, individual organisations can address the issue and consequences through deploying ideas like nonviolence, the Antimatter Principle, and redefining the collection of The Folks That Matter. Above all, though, progress depends on us recognising the medievalism implicit in the way our work works, and our relationships with that, and each other. Are you bovvered?

– Bob

Further Reading

Kahane, A. (2010). Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.


The software industry is not the only domain in which dogma and conservatism combine to defeat effectiveness. Here’s an article on how the US Army (and USMC) are using Mission-type Tactics (Auftragstaktik) in name only (MTTINO).

Losing Small Wars:  Why US Military Culture Leads to Defeat

and a backgrounder on auftragstaktik:

How the Germans Defined Auftragstaktik: What Mission Command is – AND – is Not

And see also: Product Aikido for insight into (real) mission-type tactics for product development.

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