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Organisational effectiveness

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.

Promises

We chose the Advice process as a means to devolving and distributing decision-making. We like its promise of quicker – and better! – decisions, raised levels of trust, improved communication, and higher levels of involvement and engagement. This list describes the promises, 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 the promises. Overall, we attribute this to poor implementation of the Advice Process, which we’re now intent (sic) on fixing – whilst not undermining its original promises (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

The Heart of Organisational Psychotherapy

My organisational psychotherapy practice draws inspiration from a number of individual psychotherapy schools and traditions. But none more so than Carl Rogers and Client Centred Therapy – more recently also known as Person Centred Therapy.

At the heart of my approach, drawing on Rogers, is seeing the focus of Organisational Therapy as creating a facilitative, empathic environment wherein the client organisation, collectively, can discover its answers for itself.

Answers

Actually, “answers” is just a bit misleading, given that clients may not be seeking answers, per se. Recent experiences in my current assignment lead me to choose a slightly different perspective. My current focus is on creating, or more accurately contributing to, an environment wherein the client organisation can come to know itself better.

“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”

~ Lao Tzu

Self-knowledge

The title of Tom Shadyac’s movie “I Am” is drawn from the rhetorical question “What’s wrong with this world we live in?” (And what can we do to make it better?) He concludes that the best thing we can do to make the world a better place is to know ourselves better (and thereby each make ourself a better person).

”We cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.”

~ Carl Rogers

I believe this sentiment holds as true for organisations and their collective psyche, as for Rogers’ individual clients.

– Bob

Further Reading

A Therapists’s Guide to Heart Centred Therapy ~ William P Ryan PhD (video)

The Future Of Software-Intensive Product Development

A little while ago I wrote a post posing some questions about what ways of working we might look to, After Agile. Fewer folks engaged with this post compared to some others I have written. So I’m assuming that few are thinking about what we might see as the natural – or even unnatural – successor to Agile.

It is, however, a topic that occupies me regularly. Not least because of the intrinsic flaws in the whole Agile idea. We can, and eventually must, do much better.

Recently, some folks have been asking me about what I see as the future for software- and software-intensive product development (SIPD). Of course, I’ve been answering this question, on and off, for at least the past few years.

In a Nutshell

To sum up my take: In a nutshell, the issues that plague SIPD seem obvious. They’re mostly the same issues that plague all forms of collaborative knowledge work. Issues compounded by the gulf between conventional or traditional work and the new world of work (i.e. the world of collaborative knowledge work) – a new world distinctly unfamiliar to most in the world of work today.

We are faced with various collections of pathogenic beliefs (management, traditional business, Agile, etc.), none of which provide us with a context for EFFECTIVELY tackling the challenges we face in the new world of work – i.e. the world of collaborative knowledge work.

I’m choosing here to list these challenges in terms of needs, and in terms of the strategies – conventional and unconventional – for meeting those needs.

Developers’ Needs

Agile came into being driven by developers attempting to see their needs better met. These include:

  • Less working time “wasted” on mindless bureaucracy and distractions, such as meetings, reports, documentation, etc..
  • More time to focus on making great software, and stuff that delights customers.
  • Improved relationships with co-workers, business folks, customers, and the like.
  • More flexibility to adapt to emerging information, to changing needs, and to things learned along the way.
  • More say in what they work on, the tools they work with, and how they do their work.
  • Approval of one’s peers (including a sense of belonging and community re: the “technical” tribe)
  • And simply, the leeway to just “do a better job” and make a positive difference in the world.

Bottom line: Many developers need to feel valued, purposeful, that they’re making progress (learning) and are recognised for their abilities.

Business Folks’ Needs

Secondarily, but still important in the Agile approach, is better outcomes for “the business”. Agilists have come to recognise the following needs (even though common forms of Agile do not address them).

  • Approval of one’s peers (including a sense of belonging and community re: the “management” tribe).
  • Empathy (meaningful connection with other human beings).
  • A positive self-image.
  • Stability (folks have families to support).
  • Acclaim/fame (folks have careers to pursue).
  • Warmth (of human relationships) – Most business folks are just normal people, too.
  • Peace (i.e. an absence of distress).
  • Purpose.

Users’ / Customers’ Needs

Businesses ultimately stand or fall on revenues. Revenues which depend on their products and services meeting the needs of their customers. These needs include:

  • Approval of one’s peers (including a sense of belonging and community re: the “brand” or “XYZ customer” tribe).
  • A positive self-image (what being a user or owner of a certain product says about you, in your own mind).
  • Stability (folks don’t like to think too hard, or continually learn new stuff for no good reason).
  • Warmth (of human relationships) – Most customers, being humans, value interactions with other human beings.
  • Low fuss (i.e. being able to get their jobs done with minimal distress).

Shareholders’ Needs

Shareholders also have needs which they seek to get met. These include:

  • Approval of one’s peers (including a sense of belonging and community re: the “investor” tribe).
  • Contribution to society (e.g. ethical investments) and communities.
  • Financial returns (investors have families and/or lifestyles to support).

In a future post I’ll be looking at the strategies that people use to get these needs met, including those strategies implicit in Agile methods – and some alternative strategies that might prove

– Bob

 

We’re All In This Together

Creating, sustaining and continually improving effective ways of New Product Development requires the efforts, commitment and active participation of everyone in the organisation. It’s not something that can be delegated, offloaded or left to just one department, function or silo.

In my previous post, I mention a number of constraints which typically prevent an organisation from having an effective product development approach. If you take a look at that post, you may begin to see how these particular constraints are organisation-wide. And how reducing or eliminating them requires the active participation of everyone, from the CEO, through function heads, to the front-line workers:

Whole Products means specialists (sales people, marketeers, finance, operations and customer service specialists, etc.) from across the organisation are needed for each and every new product development.

SBCE means changes to accounting practices, personnel recruitment, allocation and training (HR), as well as the understanding and involvement of senior executives in investment and strategy decisions for the longer term.

Flow means reorganising and smoothing the internal operations (explicit or implicit value streams, customer journeys, etc.) which run through the daily business as usual of the whole organisation.

Transitioning from a projects-based approach to New Product Development to something more effective (such as FlowChain) requires the overhaul and replacement of many policies, procedures and expectations across the organisation.

Cognitive Function asks us to learn about topics – psychology, neuroscience, sociology, anthropology – with which we may have had little experience before. And to prevent just one group (NPD) getting wildly out of step with the rest of the organisation, most people coming into contact with these new ideas and ways of relating to each other will need to at least understand what’s going on.

A clearly-articulated and jointly-created product development doctrine offers a means to encourage debate, and understanding, across the whole organisation.

Summary

Each of the above changes requires new understandings and new behaviours – including e.g. cooperation, collaboration, trust, and support – from every department in the organisation. Existing incentives, goals and rewards schemes tailored to individual performance and local (function-specific) results will directly oppose these new behaviours, so must be replaced with schemes designed to foster the new behaviours. Old assumptions and power structures, again supporting of traditional ways of doing things, must be overhauled to become more relevant to our new, more effective ways of New Product Development.

Ultimately, we will find ourselves asking the question “Is it worth it? Does an amazing uplift in our organisation’s ability to release new products and product updates with:

  • fewer delays and overruns
  • higher quality
  • lower cost
  • better product-market fit

warrant the root-and-branch changes necessary for success? Are we in business for the long-haul? And do we each want to be proud to have played our part in creating something truly awesome?

– Bob

 

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