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Organisational effectiveness

Strategies, Effective and Ineffective

[Tl;Dr: The effectiveness of any organisation is a function of the alignment between folks’ collective beliefs and assumptions about business, and the realities of business.]

I’m not sure this post is going to tell you anything new, but I did hear recently someone appear to misunderstand one of the the basic premises of the Marshall Model. So, for the benefit of clarity…

The Marshall Model – Recap

The Marshall Model asserts that there are four basic collective mindsets in organisations. For ease of reference, the model labels these collective mindsets, in order of increasing effectiveness: Ad-hoc, Analytic, Synergistic and Chaordic.

These various collective mindsets – and by “collective” I mean shared, more or less, by everyone within a given organisation – dictate the strategies in use in that organisation. And by “strategies in use” I mean, when making every kind of decision, from the most senior manager to the lowliest worker, the approaches used to make or inform those decisions.

Put another way, in any organisation, a multitude of decisions come up every day:

  • Which and what kind of business opportunities to pursue.
  • Who to please (and who to ignore or disappoint).
  • Which market segments to focus on.
  • How to serve those markets.
  • How to finance the business.
  • What kinds of people to hire (and fire).
  • Which trading partners to work with (and which to compete against).
  • HR policies.
  • Management policies.
  • Sales methods.
  • Engineering approaches.
  • Budgets.
  • And on and on.

How to decide? Most always, folks will approach making these decisions within the frame of their existing beliefs and assumptions. Existing beliefs and assumptions which have become the basis for their more or less automatic responses. Kahneman calls these “fast” or “system 1” responses.

And various psychological pressures conspire to ensure any one person’s beliefs and assumptions remain “congruent” with the collective assumptions and beliefs of the organisation as a whole (for example, nobody wants to be seen as an outsider).

The Effectiveness Lever

Any organisations where people work together are by, their nature, complex adaptive systems.

The Marshall Model implies that relative organisational effectiveness is a direct function of how closely the prevailing collective mindset matches the reality of organisations. If the prevailing collective mindset enables decision-makers to choose approaches and strategies well-suited to the realities of complex adaptive systems, those decisions will be more likely to be effective. If the prevailing collective mindset constrains decision-makers to approaches less well-suited to the realities of complex adaptive systems, those decisions will be more likely to be ineffective. Both as individual decisions, and in aggregate.

So, it’s not the organisations that are Ad-hoc, Analytic (a.k.a. mechanistic), Synergistic or Chaordic systems. It’s the collective thinking of the people within those organisations that conform to one of these four labels. The organisations themselves are always complex adaptive systems. And, for the clients I work with, collaborative knowledge work systems, too.

I hope this post has served to clarify. Would you be willing to let me know whether it’s achieved that aim? And for the sake of further clarity, I’m happy to address any and all questions that this post might bring to mind.

– Bob

Further Reading

Thinking, Fast and Slow ~ Daniel Kahneman

On Espoused Theory, Theory-in-Use, and “Effective Theory” ~ Mark Federman (blog post)

No Hashtags

[Tl;Dr: #No… hashtags are aspirational, not didactic.]

I seem to have been labouring under the misapprehension that most folks in the Twitter software and product development communities have come to understand the mode of use of the various #No… hashtags we see regularly these days. Particular with the widespread exposure of the mother of them all: #NoEstimates.

(Note: I use the #NoTesting hashtag in a couple of the examples, below, mainly because recent discussions thereon have suggested to me a need for this post.

Invitational

For me, #No… hashtags are a short invitation to interested folks to think again about what, often, are near-autonomic responses. For example, I regard each occurrence of the #NoEstimates hashtag as an invitation to ponder whether, in each case, estimates are giving us value and meeting folks’ needs (in a relatively effective way). An invitation to checkpoint ourselves, and to discuss whether we are just us going-through-the motions without thinking too much about the role of estimates – and estimating – in any particular situation.

Aspirational

Also, I see #No… hashtags as being intended as aspirational: Articulating or labelling a future state where things could be different. Aspiring to change.

For example, I use #NoTesting to advertise my aspirations for a world of development where testing is no longer the chosen path to quality, replaced by other means for more economically delivering products, etc., with agreed levels of quality. So, in that case, #NoTesting really does advertise my aspiration for an end to testing – which I see as hugely expensive and wasteful compared to other, less well-known means – but NOT at the expense of product quality. It also implies – easy to miss, I guess – a responsible, calm, controlled transition from todays’ approaches to that aspirational future state.

“Ask not ‘how are we going to test this?'”
“Ask rather ‘how are we going to ensure this goes out with the agreed levels of quality?'”
“And when you’ve got a handle on that, ask then ‘how are we going to ensure that everything we do henceforth goes out at the agreed levels of quality?'”

Confrontational

And yes, too, #No… hashtags are confrontational. They invite us to challenge ourselves and our entrenched beliefs. To consider change, and it’s implications. And that’s often uncomfortable, at least. Particularly when the topic challenges folks’ self-image, or seems to threaten their accumulated wisdom, reputation and experience, or their livelihoods. I hope we can all see these things in the spirit of mutual exploration, rather than as an opportunity for reiterating entrenched positions and protecting the status quo.

“[#No… Hashtags are] the social media equivalent of poking people with a stick.”

Metaphorical

When I use #No… hashtags, I’m being metaphorical rather than literal. Some folks may not understand this and get upset, by taking them literally. For my part, I believe that’s on them.

For example, with the #NoTesting hashtag, I have had some folks assume that I’m advocating abandoning any concern for the quality of e.g. a product under development. This is not my position. Although denying it seems only to inflame the situation once folks have got their teeth clamped on that particular bone. I guess their assumptions stem from not having knowledge of other means to quality.

In using the #NoTesting hashtag, I’m basically saying “under some circumstances, maybe there are other, more effective means to meet folks needs re: product quality than the default strategy most use today (i.e. testing)”. “How about we talk about those various circumstances, and means?” In this way, #No… hashtags are a metaphor for “would you be willing to think again, and maybe join the search for more effective means, and the contexts in which they might bring benefits?”

Summary

Would you be willing to join me in embracing the #No… hashtag modality, and take each occurrence as an opportunity for a productive and relationship-building mutual exploration of a topic?

– Bob

Further Reading

The Germ Theory of Management ~ Myron Tribus

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions ~ Thomas S. Kuhn

 

I Make No Promises

[Tl;Dr: Making promises is self-violence. Why do that?]

These days, I make no promises. I just do my best – within the vicissitudes of being just another human being, with my more – and less – productive days.

I used to make promises (a.k.a. commitments) – and always felt something was not quite right. Nonviolence has provided me a lens through which to see the issue more clearly.

When we issue a promise, we are implicitly putting ourselves under an obligation (to deliver on that promise). When we ask others for a promise or commitment, we are asking them to put themselves under an obligation.

Any way you look at it, obligation is one of the roots* of violence (and self-violence). I suggest this is, at a minimum, not the kind of example we might wish to set for ourselves, or others.

*The key roots of violence include: Fear, Obligation, Guilt and Shame; “F.O.G.S.”. Promises tend to play in all these areas.

Might I invite you to join me in resolving to make #NoPromises?

– Bob

The Advice Process – Flaws and Fixes

“The advice process is a tool that helps decision-making via collective intelligence. Much depends on the spirit in which people approach it. When the advice process is introduced, it might be worthwhile to train colleagues not only in the mechanics but also on the mindset underlying effective use.”

We’ve been using the Advice Process for several months now. Whilst we’re still very much committed to its use, and wish to see the changes it promotes, all has not been going smoothly with its uptake.

Potential

We chose the Advice process as a means to devolving and distributing decision-making. We like its potential for quicker – and more impactful – decisions, raised levels of trust, improved communication, and higher levels of involvement and engagement. This list describes this potential, as described by its early promoter, Dennis Bakke of AES, in more detail:

  • Community: it draws people, whose advice is sought into the question at hand. They learn about the issue. The sharing of information reinforces the feeling of community. The person whose advice is sought feels honored and needed
  • Humility: asking for advice is an act of humility, which is one of the most important characteristics of a fun workplace. The act alone says, “I need you“. The decision maker and the adviser are pushed into a closer relationship. This makes it nearly impossible for the decision-maker to ignore the advice.
  • Learning: making decisions is on-the-job education. Advice comes from people who have an understanding of the situation and care about the outcome. No other form of education or training can match this real-time experience.
  • Better decisions: chances of reaching the best decision are greater than under conventional top-down approaches. The decision maker has the advantage of being closer to the issue and has to live with responsibility for the consequences of the decision. Advice provides diverse input, uncovering important issues and new perspectives.
  • Fun: the process is just plain fun for the decision-maker, because it mirrors the joy found in playing team sports. The advice process stimulates initiative and creativity, which are enhanced by the wisdom from knowledgeable people elsewhere in the organization.

Practice

In practice, we have not yet seen full realisation of this potential. Overall, we attribute this to poor implementation of the Advice Process, which we’re now intent (sic) on fixing – whilst not undermining its original intent (see above).

Flaws

Some of the implementation flaws we have experienced include:

  • Permission-seeking. Some folks have not yet overcome their established reflex of seeking permission. The Advice Process as conceived rejects permission-seeking, placing implicit responsibility for outcomes on the individual or team with the intent, not on the permission-giver. This shift (i.e. from authoritarianism to co-creation) requires a degree of courage from all parties.
  • Trust. Some advisors have found it challenging to trust the intentions or competence of those seeking advice.
  • Belief. Some with intentions have found it challenging to believe that they now have the power/authority to make key decisions.
  • Misunderstanding/clashing frames of reference. Sometimes, advice sought and then given has been received/interpreted as denial of permission.
  • Impatience. The delay between announcing intent and receiving advice has proved a source of friction, leading on occasions to proceeding without waiting to receive considered advice from advisors who may hold key pieces of the puzzle (often, these are the busiest of people).
  • Criticality. Some people have voiced concerns that key business decisions with serious negative commercial or reputational risks could proceed to action, even when some key risks go unappreciated or unaddressed (due to advice being sought from the wrong quarters, ignored, or not understood).

Fixes

We’re intending to experiment with addressing the above concerns through a couple of refinements:

  • Shared responsibility. The onus of communication will rest equally with those communicating intent and those from whom for advice is sought. Those announcing an intent are requested to actively pursue advisors to confirm their intent has been heard and understood by all the necessary parties; those from whom advice is sought are requested to respond promptly and with due consideration of the significance of their role and advice.
  • Time-outs. In those cases where someone believes there is a problem – maybe they feel the Advice Process has not been followed correctly or not used when it should have been – that someone may call a Time-out. The intention or action in question – which may already be in train – will then be suspended, pending a go-around (i.e. another taking of soundings, general proposal of intent, seeking of advice, confirmation that the intent has been understood, and consideration of advice received). Note: This does not imply that the intention itself has been denied or overruled. Rather, some party to a particular instance of the Advice Process believes the Advice Process has not been followed or used appropriately, and that the risks implicit in the intention or action are likely not being duly considered or attended-to.
  • Arbitration. We’ll see if we need to introduce some arbitration or conflict-resolution mechanism to handle repeated time-outs being called against a given intention or action, or to handle occasions where parties disagree on whether the Advice Process has indeed been followed correctly or not.

I’ll keep you posted on how our experiment is going.

– Bob

Further Reading

Decision Making ~ ReinventingOrganisations Wiki

The Advice Process – Definition and Usage Tips ~ Daniel Tenner

Advice Process for Effective Organizational Decision-Making ~ Agilitrix

Learn Through Delivering

In my previous post I talked a little about the role of language and vocabulary in shifting focus – from being busy, to attending to folks’ needs. The word ‘deliverable’ emphasises, unsurprisingly, delivery. But what does it mean to “deliver” in the context of i.e. software development?

Inspect and Adapt

For me, delivery is the opportunity to close the feedback loop. To gain some insight into whether what we’ve been working on has been useful to our stakeholders. And to adjust our sights – and ways of doing things – in the light of that information.  So the defining aspect of any and all “deliverables” is that deliverables, by this definition, must be delivered to stakeholders and they must be able to try them out in as near as possible to real-world situations so as to provide meaningful feedback.

Cadence

Just how often might we deliver something for our stakeholders to provide feedback on? That depends on how short we want our feedback loops to be. Myself, I prefer a maximum feedback loop length of two to three days. Whether your teams are in a position to dance to this rhythm, or something slower, kind of depends on your stakeholders and how quickly they can look at, and respond to, each delivery. Keeping deliveries small can help here, by keeping what they have to look at, and their responses, small too.

Artefacts

Of course, there will be things we create, produce – things for our own consumption, like documents, design artefacts, intermediate transformations leading to deliverables, and so on. I choose to call these non-deliverables “artefacts” (or even “non-deliverables”) – to distinguish them from the deliverables on which we intend to seek feedback.

May I invite you to trial a change of perspective – from learning through doing, to learning through delivering – as soon as you have the opportunity?

– Bob

 

Tasks – or Deliverables

In most every development shop I’ve seen, folks’ planning vocabulary has been founded on the task as the unit of work. Long ago, at Familiar, we discovered that a different vocabulary offers some key advantages. Ever since then I’ve found that a planning vocabulary when deliverables are the default unit of work suit me much better.

Some Key Advantages

  • Planning in tasks encourages (subconsciously for the most part) busywork (a focus on activity).
  • Planning in deliverables encourages a focus on outputs (ands thus, closer to outcomes).
  • Deliverables are closer to what stakeholders seek (i.e. having their needs attend-to, or even met).
  • Tasks are generally one stage further removed from needs than are deliverables.
  • Deliverables are, to a degree, ends in themselves – tasks are means to ends (and hence more disconnected from outcomes).
  • I find it easier and more useful to quantify aspects of deliverables than aspects of tasks. YMMV.

Mayhap a focus on outcomes directly would be a further step in the right direction, but for most of the development groups I’ve seen, a single leap from tasks to outcomes might have proven infeasible.

May I invite you to trial a change of vocabulary, and of focus, next time you have the opportunity?

– Bob

 

Organisational Psychotherapy In the Field

Preliminary Results

We in Organisational Psychotherapy propose OP as a means for improving the “health” and social dynamic of an organisation. An improvement which translates to real bottom-line benefits through i.e. an uplift in performance (a.k.a. effectiveness, productivity, throughput).

One of the reasons I’ve dedicated my time largely to a single client (Moogsoft) for the past 9 months is the opportunity to gather data in an attempt to illuminate this proposition. Not that data convinces many in the world of business. We humans are far too irrational (predictably so) for things like facts to hold much sway. If we believe that “process” is the path to improvement, then data on the effectiveness of another path will likely trigger the backfire effect, increasing our misperceptions about the value of our cherished belief in the efficacy of “process”. Likewise for those of us who choose to hold a belief in the efficacy of “leadership”, or “management”.

Social Dynamic

In Organisational Psychotherapy we use the term “social dynamic” to refer to the quality of the human relationships within an organisation (and, by extension, with its customers and suppliers, too). We propose that the quality of these relationships are in large part the consequence of how people in the organisation, collectively, see the world of work. And the consequence of all the assumptions we collectively hold about how best to relate to each other, regard each other, and interact – up, down and across the organisation. And we propose that the quality of these relationships have a massive, yet subtle influence of the performance (effectiveness, productivity, throughput) of an organisation. Especially for knowledge-work organisations.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
~ Variously attributed

The Data Is In

All that being said, some of my readers have expressed a keen interest in Organisational Psychotherapy. Setting aside the myriad potential biases that might be involved, here’s the data from a six month period. During September 2016 through February 2017, throughput of the Software Engineering organisation within Moogsoft has increased by 80%. Projected forward, this implies an annualised improvement, year on year, of something like 160%. I.E. More than a doubling of productivity over a year. N.B. This data comes from the story point (actuals) collected via Jira tickets for all development work (new features) in this period.

So, can we even begin to claim that it was Organisational Psychotherapy that had a part to play in this increased throughput? Anecdotal evidence (observations from the Engineering folks) aligns with the data in terms of “things improving significantly” during the period. Whence this improvement? Could it have been due to factors other than Organisational Psychotherapy? I’d have to admit of the possibility. Even though its difficult for me to point specifically to other factors which may have contributed. And the data itself, derived as it is from story points, also has some questions marks.

What the Client has to Say

“We observed that we were asking for a revolution in productivity but letting our process hold back the revolutionaries. Our experiment in Organisational Psychotherapy feels like we have unleashed a pent up vigor in the team, and, if we gain nothing else (and I fully believe much more is to come) the smiles alone would have warranted the experiment. Happiness = Productivity, perhaps that is the clue?” ~ Phil Tee, CEO Moogsoft

“To become a world-leading Engineering group is a fantastic, though daunting, challenge. Many of us were both hopeful and sceptical of Organisational Psychotherapy, especially when we discovered we had to work to find our own answers. But now, our learning is opening our eyes and minds. We’re on a path to becoming the world-class development organisation we’ve long wanted to be – and we’re all relishing the challenge.”
~ Anneke Panman, Director of Engineering, Moogsoft

Conclusion

So there you have it. Irritatingly vague. Yet there may just be something in it. I leave it to you, dear reader, to consider whether the evidence, such as it is, warrants your conducting your own experiments into the merits of Organisational Psychotherapy.
I’ll continue to update you periodically as to progress as Moogsoft, where I have recently transitioned from an Organisational Psychotherapy role to that of VP, Engineering. And as for the reasons behind that, I’ll defer my exposition to a future post.

– Bob

Further Reading

Predictably Irrational ~ Dan Ariely

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