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Cost of Focus Revisited

[Recent conversations suggest that my post on Cost of Focus failed to explain the idea clearly enough for readers to grasp easily or quickly. As, for me at least, it’s a simple idea, I thought I’d summarise it in brief with a new post (this one).]

Cost of Focus

Let’s start with a definition in a nutshell:

Cost of Focus is the cost incurred when we fail to include key stakeholders* in our deliberations**.

* I generally refer to these folks, collectively, as The Folks That Matter™.
** By deliberations, I have in mind what old-school folks call “requirements capture” or “requirements analysis”, and what I, nowadays, refer to as “needs investigation”.

Put another way:

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.

Note: I could have chosen the name “Cost of Flawed Focus” (the cost of focussing on less relevant stakeholders and less relevant requirements), but this seemed a little less snappy than “Cost of Focus”.

Typically, the costs in question accrue from rejection of part or all of the delivered project / system / product / software application by one or more key parties (such as users) whose needs have not been adequately addressed  – and these costs can be massive. In any number of cases, whole systems have had to be abandoned because one or more key stakeholder groups have refused to use the new system. And even when not totally abandoned, oftentimes major costs have accrued from the delays and extra work required to remediate the original errors of focus. (See also Cost of Focus’ kissing cousin – Cost of Delay).

The Folks That Matter™

[The following excerpt first appeared in my blog post The Folks That Matter™. I repeat it here for the convenience of the reader:]

Cost of Focus

Don Reinertsen states that the Cost of Delay – the financial or economic cost of delaying a given feature by prioritising 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, i.e. the question of Cost of Focus.

By definition, we are failing to meet some folks’ 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 (prioritise less valuable features), 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, black-and-white 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 to whose needs to attend, the particular order in which we attend to those needs (cf. priority, Cost of Delay) is moot.

– Bob

Further Reading

Cost of Focus ~ Think Different blog post
The Folks That Matter™ ~ Think Different blog post
Cost of Delay ~ Wikipedia entry

What Is A Customer?

In the world of Agile, and the world of business too, we hear a lot about “customer value”. Folks seem to have some kind of handle on “value” (although not everyone can agree on that one – see my post “What Is Value” for my take, based on Goldratt and his Theory of Constraints).

And for the record, we might also choose to frame the question of value within the Antimatter Principle frame, and vocabulary:

Value: The degree to which folks’ needs, in aggregate, are being (or have been) met.

But what about “customer”? So simple and straightforward. Do we even need to define it? I thought not, until a recent conversation on Twitter gave me pause for reconsidering. Specifically, the idea that maybe folks are talking at major cross-purposes, with significantly differing assumptions and definitions for the term. If we can’t agree on a basic term like “customer”, what chance alignment of a whole host of fundamental questions about software, products and business generally?

Here’s my definition, again using the Antimatter Principle as a frame:

Customer: Someone (could be either a person, or a collection of people) whose needs we’re attending to.

I’m pretty sure you’ll have a different definition of customer. I’d love to hear your take.

Before I close this post, here’s a different definition, informed by Crosby and his Zero-Defects (ZeeDee) approach to quality:

Customer: Anyone who receives or anticipates receiving something (e.g. a good or a service) from someone else.

This definition canonises Crosby’s idea that we’re all customers. And we’re all suppliers, too. And as suppliers, it falls to us to ensure that what we’re supplying is what our immediate customer needs to supply their customer(s).

– Bob

Why Reason When Faith is So Much More Comfortable?

I’ve become very bored trying to explain why Agile – even when practised as the Snowbird Gods intended – is a dead-end and why we might choose to bark up a different tree for progress in improving the effectiveness of software development organisations.

Firstly. No one seems at all interested in “improving the effectiveness of software development organisations”. Yes, there does seem to be some interest in being seen to be doing something about improving the effectiveness of software development organisations. Hence SAFe, DAD, LeSS – and Agile itself. None of these approaches do anything about actually improving the effectiveness of software development organisations, of course. But that’s not the point. Improvement *theatre* wins the day in just about every case. Irrespective of practices done “right”, or more often, done “in name only” (Cf AINO).

To actually do anything about improving the effectiveness of software development organisations requires we remove some fundamental system constraints, including:

  • Optimising parts of the organisation in isolation
  • Pursuit of specialism (vs generalists)
  • Control (as in Command & Control)
  • Annual budgeting
  • Extrinsic motivation
  • Ignorance of the special needs/realities of collaborative knowledge work
  • Separation of decision-making from the work
  • Decision-makers’ ignorance of and indifference to customers’ needs
  • Seeing performance as consequent on the efforts of individuals and “talent”
  • Discounting the paramountcy of social interactions and inter-personal relationships

And that ain’t gonna happen.

Second, improving the effectiveness of software development organisations kinda misses the point. In that software development is part of the problem. Making it more effective is just – as Ackoff would say – doing more wrong things righter.

Instead, a focus on meeting folks’ needs, or at least, as a minimum, attending to their needs, would serve our search for effectives rather better. And that generally requires less software, and placing software development last in terms of priority, way before understanding customers’ needs ( (and more generally the needs of the Folks’ That Matter).

Given that the software industry’s revenues are contingent on producing software (see: Upton Sinclair’s Dictum) that ain’t gonna happen, either.

Third, if we regard improving the effectiveness of software development organisations as our aim, and limit our ambitions to that part of the organisation concerned directly with software development (i.e. the IT department or the Product Development department) then, at best, we’ll only ever see a local optimisation. Which as Ackoff tells us, only makes matters (i.e. the effectiveness of the whole organisation) *worse*. To improve organisational effectiveness (not to mention supply chain effectiveness, customers’ effectiveness) requires us to consider the organisation as a system, and focus on the systemic relationships between the parts, rather than on the parts taken separately. And given that systems thinking has failed to gain much traction in over fifty years of trying, THAT ain’t gonna happen either.

I’ll just leave this here:

“If you could reason with Agile people, there would be no Agile people.”

It all looks a bit bleak, doesn’t it? Another method isn’t going to help much, either. Unless it addresses the three points outline above. As a minimum.

That’s why I have been for some years inviting folks to consider Organisational Psychotherapy as a way forward.

But reason, rationality, and a cold hard look at reality and the shortcoming of the status quo ain’t gonna happen. Until organisations see a need for that to happen.

– Bob

Damn Outcomes!

It seems in vogue to extol the praises of “outcomes” when discussing e.g. software and product development. Setting aside the challenges of defining what we might mean by “outcomes” (I dislike getting into rabbit-hole discussions of semantics), there’s one key aspect of this debate that seems to escape folks’ attention. W Edwards Deming nailed it decades ago with his First Theorem:

“Nobody gives a hoot about profits.”

Even so, Deming said little about what folks (managers, in his frame) DO give a hoot about. We can turn to Russell L. Ackoff for an insight into that:

“Executives’ actions make sense [only] if you look at them as taken in order to maximise the executive’s well being.”

As Dr. Ackoff says, a secondary focus on profits is just the cost executives must pay in order to maximize their rewards. The actions taken would be different if the well being of the organization was primary and the well being of senior executives subservient to that aim.

Outcomes

So, to outcomes. The outcomes that delight will be those that maximise the executives’ (and other folks’) well being. When developing a piece of software, how often do the specifics of the well being of the Folks That Matter get discussed? Indeed, is the subject even discussable? Or is it taboo? In your organisation?

How unsurprising then, that software as delivered is so often lacklustre and uninspiring. That it fails to address the core issues of the well being of the Folks That Matter? That it’s the wrong software.

As a developer or team, do you ever afford your customers (a.k.a. the Folks That Matter) the opportunity to talk about their well being? And how what you’re doing for them might contribute to that well being?

So, might I invite you to stop talking about specious and illusory “outcomes”. And start asking the difficult questions of your customers (and yourselves)?

Here’s a possible opener:

“Would you be willing to discuss what it is you need for your own well being?”

– Bob

Further Reading

Nobody Gives a Hoot About Profit ~ The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog post
Agile Competency Is A Crock ~ Think Different blog post

The Big Shift

Let’s get real for a moment. Why would ANYONE set about disrupting the fundamental beliefs and assumptions of their whole organisation just to make their software and product development more effective?

It’s not for the sake of increased profit – Deming’s First Theorem states:

“Nobody gives a hoot about profits”.

If we believe Russell Ackoff, executives’ motivation primarily stems from maximising their own personal well being a.k.a. their own quality of work life.

Is There a Connection?

Is there any connection between increased software and product development effectiveness, and increased quality of work life for executives? Between the needs of ALL the Folks That Matter and the smaller subset of those Folks That Matter that we label “executives”? Absent such a connection, it seems unrealistic (understatement!) to expect executives to diminish their own quality of work life for little or no gain (to them personally).

Note: Goldratt suggests that for the idea of effectiveness to gain traction, it’s necessary for the executives of an organisation to build a True Consensus – a jointly agreed and shared action plan for change (shift).

Is Disruption Avoidable?

So, the question becomes:

Can we see major improvements in the effectiveness (performance, cost, quality, predictability, etc.) of our organisation, without disrupting the fundamental beliefs and assumptions of our whole organisation?

My studies and experiences both suggest the answer is “No”. That collaborative knowledge work (as in software and product development) is sufficiently different from the forms of work for which (Analytic-minded) organisations have been built as to necessitate a fundamentally different set of beliefs and assumptions about how work must work (the Synergistic memeplex). If the work is to be effective, that is.

In support of this assertion I cite the widely reported failure rates in Agile adoptions (greater than 80%), Lean Manufacturing transformations (at least 90%) and in Digital Transformations (at least 95%).

I’d love to hear your viewpoint.

– Bob

Further Reading

Organisational Cognitive Dissonance ~ Think Different blog post

Something’s Gotta Give

 

“The things businesses have to do to make software development successful are well known. And equally well known is the fact that businesses will absolutely not do these things.”

This reality puts us in a bind. We find ourselves in a position where we have to trade off successful development against conforming to organisational norms. We can have one – or the other. It’s not a binary trade-off, we can for example relax some norms and gain some (small) improvements in success. But by and large it’s a zero sum game. At least from the perspective of those folks that find value in everyone conforming to preexisting norms.

I don’t think many business folks realise this trade-off exists. Almost all the business folks I have met over the years seem unaware that their norms are what’s holding back their success in software (and product) development. I put this down to the absence of any real understanding of the fundamentally different nature of collaborative knowledge work (different to their experiences and assumptions).

Some of the Things

By way of illustration, here’s just a few of the things that are necessary for successful software (and product) development, that businesses just won’t do:

De-stressing

Removing stressors (things that create distress) from the workplace. These things include: job insecurity; being directed and controlled; being told where, when and how to work; etc..

Stressors serve to negatively impact cognitive function (amongst other things).

Trusting

Placing trust in the folks actually doing the work. We might refer to this a a Theory-Y posture.

Experimenting

Finding out through disciplined and systematic experimentation what works and what doesn’t. See: the Toyota Improvement Kata.

Being Human

Embracing what it means to be human; seeing employees as infinitely different, fully-rounded human beings with a broad range emotions, needs and foibles (as opposed to e.g. interchangeable cogs in a machine).

Intrinsic Discipline

Relying on intrinsic motivation to encourage and support a disciplined approach to work.

Meaningful Dialogue

Talking about what’s happening, the common purpose, and what the problems are.

Eschewing Numbers

Realising the limitations with numbers, dashboards, KPIs and the like and finding other ways to know whether things are moving in the “right direction”.

Prioritising Interpersonal Relationships

In collaborative knowledge work (especially teamwork), it’s the quality of the interpersonal relationships that’s by far the greatest factor in success.

Summary

If your organisation needs to see more success in its software (and product) development efforts, then something’s gotta give. Specifically, some of its prevailing norms, assumption and beliefs have gotta give. And given that these norms come as a self-reinforcing memeplex (a.k.a. the Analytic Mindset), a piecemeal approach is highly unlikely to afford much in the way of progress.

– Bob

Standard Work and Collaboration

[Tl;Dr: Ad-hoc and impromptu collaboration is a signal – that our standard work is incomplete or insufficient, and that we don’t understand as much about what we’re doing and how, as we’d like to think.]

Standard Work

Standard work (also known as Standardized Work) is an operational definition of how the work works today. Best written and maintained (studied, updated) by the folks actually doing the work. Toyota defines Standard Work as ”the steps one needs to walk in order to complete a process”. Mike Rother defines Standard Work as the “Target Condition” in the Improvement Kata. This seems to me to make some sense.

“There is something called standard work, but standards should be changed constantly.”

~ Taiichi Ohno, Workplace Management

5W+1H

In slightly more detail: “Standardized work answers the 5W+1H of a process – the who, what, when, where, why, and how. Who operates the process, and how many people does it take? What does the final product look like, what are the quality check points, what are the tools required to complete the job? When is a part completed and ready for the next step (how long should the cycle time and takt time be)? Where is this process completed and what does this location look like (standardized work cell, point of use storage of tools, etc)? Why is this step necessary or value-adding, or why is this a quality check point?”

“When there is no standard [work], there is no Kaizen (continual improvement).”

~ Taiichi Ohno

In other words, when a process is performed unsystematically in different ways, then:

  1. There can be no basis for comparison (before/after)
  2. One cannot objectively tell if there was a difference or change
  3. No improvement is possible in regards to Time, Quality, Quantity, Cost, etc.

Collaboration is Waste

So, where does collaboration come into the picture? If the standard work specifies “collaborate here” (with 5W+1H or an operation definition for the collaboration) for a particular step, then all is fine and dandy.

But often, in software development particularly, there is no standard work, or the standard work lacks the detail which might suggest the 5W+1H of the collaboration. Exceptions which come to mind are: the daily standup (Scrum), sprint planning (Scrum) and sprint retrospectives (Scrum) (i.e. the various Scrum ceremonies – for which teams rapidly find their own work standards or de facto operational definitions).

Consequently, collaboration in software development is most often ad-hoc. Someone might run into a problem or challenge, and ask a colleague e.g. “Hey, can you help me with this?” or “Can we pair on this for half an hour?” or “Let’s get together and figure out what to do here”.

If we had clearly defined standard work, the specifics of what to do and who to call on when a problem arises would already be defined. Without such standard work, the coordination (set-up, figuring-out) of the necessary collaboration is waste, and interrupts the flow (both of value, and in the Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi sense of the word).

Do I hear you rail against this idea? Do you believe it’s impossible to foresee where and when collaboration might be necessary? Do you enjoy collaborating so much that you’re prepared to dismiss its negatives? May I put it to you that in such circumstances, you don’t actually know what y’all are doing? That you have little or no clear idea how to get from the start of sprint (or longer term) to the end, to the delivery of value? That you’re making much of it (“the way the work works”) up as y’all go along?

“…this model of ‘standards’ as something for compliance is a cancer that is holding us back in our quest to establish a new level of understanding around what ‘continuous improvement’ really means.”

~ Mark Rosenthal

The Bottom Line

This may all seem rather esoteric. How much can it matter whether collaboration costs us a few dollars or hours? For me, ad-hoc and impromptu collaboration is a signal – that our standard work is incomplete or insufficient, and that we don’t understand as much about what we’re doing and how, as we’d like to think.

Does it matter? I leave that to y’all to decide.

– Bob

Further Reading

What Is Standardized Work (And What Is It Not)? ~ LeanBlitz article
Mike Rother: Time to Retire the Wedge ~ Mark Rosenthal

 

Random Walks

How well does the almost universal Agile practice of “build it and see if they come” serve us (as developers, as customers)?

I suggest it’s time to rethink our belief that customers (and developers, for the most part) “don’t know what they want until they see it”.

My late, great colleague and friend Grant Rule used to refer to the practice, common in the Agile domain, of building (a portion of) something to see if the customer likes it as “random walks through the problems-solution space”.

Quality Demands Requirements

Philip Crosby, a widely acclaimed “guru” of Quality Management, defined quality as “conformance to requirements”. As simple and blunt as that.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences with software product development, especially the development of “quality” products that customers love. In Javelin, we place special emphasis on de-risking delivery through explicitly defining the customers and their respective requirements. Not big-bang, up-front stylee, but incrementally, just enough each couple of days to build a little more of the product and deliver it to the customer(s) for their delight, confidence, and feedback.

But in our approach, requirements (in the frame of the Antimatter Principle we call these needs) precedes building anything. Agile shops these days seems to major in building something before discussing requirements (if they ever get discussed at all). BDD offers an exception, but how many shops do BDD?

Aside: In Javelin, we identify all stakeholders (all the Folks That Matter), discuss their needs (“Stakeholders’ Needs”) and quantify them (a la Gilb – see: Competitive Engineering) in the form of Quantified Quality Objectives. Although this all generally proceeds incrementally, rather than in a big batch up front, the information is always to hand by the time someone gets around to building the relevant part of the thing in question. People work from the requirements. Always.

Random Walks are not Our Bag

Random walks are not our bag.

By cleaving to the belief that customers “don’t know what they want until they see it”, and structuring the whole approach to development around this belief, Agile shops have no incentive to improve the way they work with customers to understand their needs. No incentive to improve requirements elicitation and capture. No incentive – or means – to prevent defects and deliver zero-defects quality. Indeed, this belief and its associated practices blocks us from working to continually find better ways to create useful requirements (formal statements of folks’ needs) from which to drive quality (cf Crosby) and the improving of relationships with each other (developers, ops) and with customers.

Is this emphasis on working-from-clearly-stated-and-agreed-requirements better? Well, in my experience it makes for happier customers, happier developers, and more successful products. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether and how that’s “better”.

– Bob

Digital Transformation

It seems like “Digital Transformation” of organisations is all the rage – or is it fear? – in C-suites around the world. The term implies the pursuit of new business models and, by extension, new revenue streams. I’ve been speaking recently with folks in a number of organisations attempting “Digital Transformation”, some for the fourth or fifth time. I get the impression that things are not going well, on a broad front.

What is Digital Transformation?

Even though the term is ubiquitous nowadays, what any one organisation means by the term seems to vary widely. I’ll attempt my own definition, for the sake of argument, whilst recognising that any given organisation may have in mind something rather different, or sometimes no clear idea at all. Ask ten different organisations what Digital Transformation means to them, and you’re likely to get at least ten different answers.

Digital Transformation is the creation and implementation of new business models, new organisational models and new revenue streams made possible by the use of new digital technologies and channels.

Ironically it’s proving to NOT be about technology, but rather about company culture (this, in itself, being a product of the collective assumptions and beliefs of the organisation).

“A significant number of organisations are not getting [digital] transformation right because of a fundamental quandary over what digital transformation really is.”

~ Brian Solis, principal analyst and futurist at Altimeter

My Interest

So, why am I bothering to write this post? Aren’t there already reams of articles about every conceivable aspect of Digital Transformation?

Well, one aspect of Digital Transformation I see little covered is that relating to the development of “digital” products for the digitally-transformed company. And the implications this brings to the party.

Digital Transformation requires the development of new products and services to serve the new business models, new organisational models and new revenue streams. Digital products and digital services. In most cases, this means software development. And organisations, particularly untransformed organisations – which even now means most of them – are spectacularly inept at both software development and product development. Some refer to this as “a lack of digital literacy”.

Things have not changes much in this arena for the past fifty years and more. Failure rates resolutely hover around the 40% mark (and even higher for larger projects). And the much-vaunted (or is it much cargo-cullted?) Agile approach to development has hardly moved the needle at all.

For the past two decades I have been writing about the role of the collective psyche – and the impact on organisational effectiveness of the collectively-held assumptions and beliefs about how work should work. And make no mistake, effectiveness is a key issue in digital product development. Relatively ineffective organisations will fail to deliver new digital products and services at least as often as 40% of the time. Relatively effective organisations can achieve results at least an order of magnitude better than this.

The Marshall Model provides an answer to the question: what do we have to do to become more effective as an organisation? And it’s not a popular answer. By analogy, people looking to lose weight rarely like to hear they will have to eat less and exercise more. Organisations looking to become more effective rarely like to face up to the fact that they will have to completely rethink long-held and deeply-cherished beliefs about the way work should be organised, managed, directed and controlled. And remodel their organisations along entirely alien lines in order to see a successful Digital Transformation and compete effectively in the digital domain.

Successful Digital Transformations demand organisations not only come up with new business strategies, organisational models, revenue streams and digital products and services, but also that they shift their collective mindset to one which aligns with their ambitions. Personally, I see shifting the collective mindset as an essential precursor to the former. Most organisations approaching Digital Transformation fail to recognise this inevitability, this imperative. And so, most Digital Transformations are doomed to underachieve, or fail entirely.

“Ask yourself whether what you’re doing is disruptive to your business and to your industry. If you can say yes with a straight face, you may well be conducting a legitimate digital transformation.” And if you’re unable to say yes, then whatever you’re doing, it’s likely not a Digital Transformation.

If you’d like to explore this topic, understand more about the Marshall Model, its relevance and its predictive power, and save your organisation millions of Dollar/Pounds/Euros – not to mention much embarrassment and angst – I’d be delighted to chat things over with you and your executive team.

– Bob

Further Reading

Reinventing Organizations ~ Frederic Laloux

Cost of Focus

Or, more specifically, the cost of suboptimal focus – the cost of focusing on some (less relevant) needs of some Folks That Matter to the detriment or neglect of other (more relevant, valuable) needs of other Folks That Matter.

If we commit our (always limited) resources ineffectively, our returns (we might call this ROI) will likewise fall short of what would be possible if we committed our resources more effectively, or optimally.

How Do We Decide?

How we as a individual, team, group or organisation decide who we’re trying to please, delight, satisfy, or otherwise engage with and deliver to?  How do we get to know what folks need, and who to ask about the details of those needs? How do we choose whose needs we can successfully discount or defer when the inevitable resource (time, money, effort) crunches come? Who matters and who does not? Which needs are more relevant, valuable (with respect our chosen Goal) and which, less?

Might it be useful to have some heuristics, or policy, or other forms of guidance, to guide us in decisions on including, excluding and prioritising folks and their needs? Personally, if it were entirely up to me, I’d go with the general principle describe by Goldratt and summarised in my post “What is Value?“.

By way of a quick summary of that post:

Focus on those things that relax the customers’ constraint, so as to increase the overall throughput of their business (a.k.a. “Mafia Offers”). And focus on the customers, or market segments, that you understand best – or at least can work with to find such understanding.

Our aim: to optimise the Needsscape a.k.a. the needs we meet (for example, need for revenue, profit, cost reduction, etc. often sits at top of mind).

Relevance For Workers

This post is not just about decisions made by executives and managers. Everybody has the same dilemma: how do I/we decide where to focus? Which code module would it be better to deliver first? Which tests are more valuable that others? Who would it be better to work with first, to understand their needs (a.k.a. constraints, requirements, or whatever)? Where we choose to focus absolutely determines how others see us and our efforts.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is: the more effective we are at focussing on things that contribute to our personal or business goal (Cf. Goldratt), the more of our goal we’re likely to get. (Is that self-serving? Only if our goal is self-serving. Choose wisely).

– Bob

Further Reading

The Goal ~ Eliyahu M. Goldratt
It’s Not Luck ~ Eliyahu M. Goldratt
Focus ~ Think Different blog post
What is Value? ~ Think Different blog post

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